Future network landscape means a career jitter ahead for IT pros

New technologies, especially virtualization, will dramatically affect the roles and livelihoods of network engineers. How then, should netadmins prepare for the big changes ahead?

Five years is a long time in IT. It’s like dog years, with the conversion rate an IT constant, multiplied by the complexity of the environment. Planning a future network engineering career half a decade out is no easy task, especially when you’re interrupt-driven, quelling one crisis after the next. We buy our network management tools based on what they deliver right now, not on roadmaps. But for our personal career development it’s reversed, and we must consider years, not just quarters.

A new job we choose today might position us to ride the next wave to greater compensation, an IT management role or a better work-life balance. But it’s just as likely taking a different role, investing time in the wrong certifications or worse, just doing nothing, that might put our careers on the rocks just five years from now. New technologies, especially virtualization, will dramatically affect the roles and livelihoods of network engineers. How then, should netadmins prepare for the big changes ahead?

Explosion of gizmos and virtual pipes

Two colliding challenges are driving a fundamental sea change. First, business has compounded the established rate of services concentration onto networks with new technologies and worse, whole new device categories, that all expect network access. BYOD in many environments doubles the number of endpoints, but without the control of company provided gear. Cloud and SaaS are here to stay, and program owners expect improved performance from them than with the LAN hosted solutions they replaced. Telepresence has become critical not just to executives, but also to the everyday management of global teams. Add in increased security attacks from every direction and you have a project list for the foreseeable future.

Second, and more importantly, the virtualization genie is out of the systems management bottle. VMware NSX, standards based SDN and Cisco’s eventual non-Hardware Defined Networking solution will move a significant chunk of today’s command line interface (CLI) under a mouse. It’s no longer a question of if, but rather how and when. There was a time that a graybeard CLI wizard, (greenbeards?), could use PuTTY like a kryptonite shield to thwart sysadmin encroachment, but that’s about to change. Vendors have responded to management’s desire to lower network administration costs. And make no mistake; moving virtualized networks under the control of vCenter gives existing system admins a head start. They have years of experience and management will encourage them to expand their knowledge and assume as much ownership as possible.

On a virtualized Internetof Things (Cisco’s Internet of Everything), more devices and diverse services than ever will be connected to a programmable network that begins in the datacenter, and then spreads out its most remote edge. With systems virtualization, it wasn’t just racks and servers that were consolidated—system admin teams became smaller as well. The same will undoubtedly happen with networking. We will have larger and more complex networks and fewer network engineers managing by automation. When the music stops there will be fewer chairs.

Learn new ninja skills

Fortunately, the future for network gurus is not a giant bummer -quite the contrary. IT management already looks to network engineers for sage advice and technical direction:

  1. We watch our businesses’ heart beat in the flow of packets on our networks.
  2. We routinely meet with senior managers who know us on a first name basis.
  3. We find the routes to enable new opportunities, streamline existing processes and lower costs every day.

By getting ahead of new trends now, you’ll have opportunities five years from now that you might not even imagine today.

  • Get your head in the cloud. Whether hosted by a major provider or delivering your existing services as a private cloud, you need to gain significant expertise with the networking challenges of delivering seamless connectivity. Soon, if not already in your datacenter, admins won’t even think about the plumbing between the servers whirring in your racks and those silently processing requests out who-knows-where. Vendors like Microsoft have already stated that hybrid solutions are here to stay, and management will look well on the engineer who makes it work well.
  • Get serious about security. Security issues from firewalls to servers already represent a huge threat to business, and the situation will become even worse in a complex, visualized environment with fewer admins. The reason your firewall policies keep you up at night now is not that you don’t have the skills to sort them out, it’s that you don’t have time. Network security policy management products that automate out errors and widen policy adherence can reduce vulnerability today. Gaining expertise in SDN Security could make you indispensable.
  • Hit the books. New certifications like the forthcoming VMwareCertified Associate - Network Virtualization are going to be important. You’ll need to learn more than just how to do network configuration with a mouse. sysadmins will need your years of networking expertise on their platforms and it’s a great way to gain a seat with root at the vCenter table. In many cases you’ll be the only one to close even the hairiest helpdesk tickets.
  • Get involved in the budget process. As engineers we generally prefer to stay out of processes that have political dimensions, but in the future vendor assessment, product selection and tools expenditures will be more important than ever. With more complexity comes more management tools, and your understanding of both technology and your business gives you a unique perspective budget managers will need to achieve their mission. Get to know the magic spreadsheets.

Relax, you’re an engineer

Most of all remember that there will be great opportunities for career growth with this transformation. Motivated technologists with ability to quickly comprehend and manage complex environments become leaders when complexity increases. And that is the stock and trade of network engineers. It’s what we do every day. Create some room each week for research, set up a lab for hands-on learning and embrace the changes. You may even make today’s gig more fun.

By Patrick Hubbard, SolarWinds Head Geek